This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, September 20, 2000

September 20, 2000 - Building Community

I've just returned from the annual conference of the Colorado Library Association. The association has over 1000 members now, and its annual conference is an opportunity for people to share what theyíve learned, listen to (and challenge) some national leaders and thinkers, and socialize.

My first day of the conference was spent in a session about building community. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Kathleen McCook, happens to have been one of my teachers back in library school. She told a disturbing story: over the past thirty years or so, library science faculty have disengaged.

This could be demonstrated in two ways. First is the virtual disappearance of the word "library" from library schools. They're all schools of information studies, now.

Why the change? Because faculty, like most other people, seek status. And on campus thereís more respect for sexy technology-related studies than anything so mundane as working in a library.

There ís a direct negative consequence to all this: it ís getting hard to find classes on some fairly fundamental public library skills. There are fewer classes on how to develop services for children. There are fewer classes on the management of the public library. All this is happening just as an older generation of librarians (that did have these classes), is nearing retirement.

There is more to libraries than computers. Or to put it another way, computers are tools for libraries, not the other way around.

A second community related issue also involves library faculty. Library faculty, even 20 years ago, tended to be very visible in professional associations. They served on committees that formed policies, devised planning documents, and otherwise engaged with the practical issues of librarianship. But these days, according to Dr. McCook, it's a little harder to get these folks out of their ivory towers, not only to attend professional library meetings, but to truly connect to the world outside academia.

Their current distance hurts them because it isolates them from the vitality of library practice. What they don't know, they can't teach.

Finally then, McCook issued a call to arms. Library faculty need to immerse themselves not only in their professional associations, but also in their immediate communities.

In trying to test this theory, Dr. McCook did two things. First, she threw herself into her own community, showing up at meetings that had never seen librarians before.

Second, she started digging through the literature by and about libraries looking for people who practiced this new approach. Her idea was this: instead of pleading with people to use libraries (or waiting for the community to find us), we need to go to the community to see if we can help them solve THEIR problems.

She then introduced some panelists. One of them, Annette Choszczyk (CHOE-zik) works in Glendale, Colorado, where a tiny, tiny branch of the Arapahoe Library District suddenly found itself overwhelmed by a flood of Russian immigrants.

The library rose to the challenge. They launched volunteer-based English instruction classes. They formed book discussion groups. They bought computers and software to allow their new patrons to write letters back home in Russian.

Today, the library has a whole floor of classroom space, an astonishing collection of foreign language materials, and employs a good many Russians. The library is the unofficial welcoming station for perhaps as many as 40,000 new American residents in the Denver metropolitan area.

In the process, the library earned extraordinary respect from all the people around them. Librarians began to be the ones everybody naturally thought of when it came to the need for help or advice. Librarians now attend city council meetings and sit on advisory boards. The ultimate compliment might be something the mayor of Glendale said. To him, the library was the best symbol of what Glendale could be: a responsive institution that valued and celebrated its people.

In short, by challenging herself and her peers, my professor discovered something that applies to all librarians, not just library school faculty. Librarians belong to their communities. Our choice is engagement or retreat, success or failure, meaning or meaninglessness.

It's a powerful lesson.

Thank you, Dr. McCook. I,m still learning from you, and it still takes a lot of work to get a good grade.

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